While good taste may always be in season, the same cannot be said for seasonal fruits and vegetables. Timing when picking summer crops is key to maximizing their flavor. Since each person’s palate is personal, learning more about when to pick is key to fully enjoying your garden’s harvest.
Two favorite fruits, blackberries and peaches, are now ripening. And while the peach crop may be a bit sparse in the Hill Country, in other regions with enough cold weather, the crop looks very good, said Larry Stein, Ph.D., horticulture specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Uvalde.
Stein said peaches should be picked as they “turn,” meaning as the green on the peach breaks to yellow. Some people prefer softer peaches, so they will leave them on the tree longer. This increases the chance you’ll be sharing, and losing, a part of your crop to birds, however.
Stein said you can get the same softness by picking peaches when they turn and then leaving them on your counter for a few days.
“There’s a saying that farmers use — ‘sell them or smell them’– that is true for peaches,” he said. “Once they are soft, they do need to be used immediately because peaches don’t last.”
Clingstones tend to be the first peaches to ripen in Texas. Clingstone peaches have flesh that clings to the pit, whereas freestone peaches have fruit that easily pulls away from it.
Stein said due to the amount of rain some areas of the state received, some peaches have split pits. Pits split because the fruit grows so rapidly that it pulls its own seed apart.
“A split pit doesn’t really affect the quality,” Stein said, “But they may be a little harder to eat around or to cut.”
When you pick blackberries, let the color be your guide. Blackberries go from green to red to purple and then to a deeper purple. Most people consider the prime taste to be between two stages of purple. The darker the purple, the sweeter the taste.
Gardeners need to stay on top of blackberries and, ideally, pick them every day. Stein said some growers are seeing stink bug damage to their blackberries. A white spot on the fruit indicates stink bug damage, but spots can be cut out if the damage is not too extensive.
Watermelons are another seasonal favorite that needs to be checked regularly for ripeness. They are usually ready when the bottom portion is yellow-green or even yellow.
Picking tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans and corn
Stein said you should harvest tomatoes when they turn from green to the start of breaking a pink tint.
“This is the prime time to pick,” he said. “If you leave them on the vine, varmints will find them.”
By putting them out on a counter for three to five days, the tomatoes will ripen to a perfect shade and taste. He cautions against refrigerating tomatoes as it will stop or slow the ripening process.
When to pick peppers comes down to personal taste. Whether serranos, jalapenos or bells, peppers may be eaten at any size or color. When green, bell peppers will be the strongest and the taste will mellow as they mature from yellow to red. The amount of heat in hot peppers is dependent on the variety and the growing conditions; harsh conditions can lead to hotter peppers.
“Peppers really like hot weather, so gardeners need to be patient,” Stein said. “People often think their pepper plants aren’t producing when it is really just a matter of time.”
When it comes to squash, younger is better. Younger squash has the advantage of being entirely edible. It is with age that squash skin and seeds become tough and hard. Larger squash are often best saved for use in breads.
“For the absolute best eating quality, pick your squash the day after it flowers,” he said. “The smaller the squash, the more flavorful it will be.”
Whether white pattypan, zucchini, yellow crookneck or any other summer varieties, Stein recommends cutting squash into two-inch cubes, stemming then and adding a little butter and cheese for a can’t-miss meal.
Younger is also better for green beans, as they will be more tender and flavorful. Preparation is also easier since cutting the stem end off and cooking them whole is all that is required — no need to worry about snapping them.
Sweet corn can be tricky. Once ripe, the sugars in the kernels turn to starch in about three days. Corn kernels left on the plant too long lose the delicious sweetness as more and more of the sugar is converted to starch.
Around 20 days after the first silk appears, you’ll be close to harvest time. The silks will turn brown, but the husks will stay green when ripe. You can double-check if it’s ready to be picked by puncturing a kernel with your fingernail, and a milky liquid comes out. Corn is best harvested in the morning and used as soon as possible.
Garden tips for June
Stein said the recent rains the state has had should make for a bountiful harvest this summer. Here he offers his top tips for June.
Understand the importance of irrigation
Supplemental irrigation is essential for all but the hardiest plants in times of extended drought. Lawns and gardens should be watered thoroughly, but not too often. As a general rule, soak to a depth of 6 inches instead of watering frequently. Finish watering by early afternoon to lessen the chance of disease. By the same token, if you have received excess rain, remember to turn off your automatic watering systems or put them on rain delay.
Mulching really matters
Especially during dry summers, soil moisture becomes extremely important and essential for good plant production. Because continual watering is often costly and time-consuming, it pays to conserve the moisture around plants. This is best done by mulching.
Good mulch will retain valuable moisture needed for plant growth and improve overall gardening success. Mulches are usually applied 2-6 inches deep, depending on the material used. In general, the coarser the material, the deeper the mulch. For example, a 2-inch layer of cottonseed hulls will have about the same mulching effect as 6 inches of oat straw or 4 inches of coastal Bermuda hay.
Lose the weeds before they seed
Hand-pull or hoe weeds before they mature and produce seed. Don’t let the weeds get the water and nutrients your garden plants might need.
Think heat-tolerant annuals
There is still time to plant some of the heat-tolerant summer annuals, Stein said. You can direct-seed zinnias and portulaca and purchase periwinkle, salvia, marigold and purslane plants for transplanting. Be sure to water transplants adequately until roots become established.
Evaluate and plan ahead
Take a critical look at your landscape at the height of summer development. Make notes of how it could be better arranged and enjoyed. Take note of the plants that need replacement, overgrown plants that need to be removed, and improvements you may want to make.
Deal with pests and disease
Check for insects and diseases and destroy badly infested plants. Spider mites can be especially troublesome at this time. Select a chemical or organic control or use insecticidal soap. If the infestation is most severe, the best bet is to destroy the plants.
Give your houseplants a change of scenery
House plants can be moved outdoors this month. Sink the pots in a cool, shaded garden bed to prevent them from drying out so quickly; water pots, container plants and hanging baskets often. Monthly feedings with house plant fertilizer will encourage continued growth. Stein said to be especially careful to keep them out of direct sunlight.
Plan for next spring
Now is the time to plan for next spring. Consider digging and dividing any crowded spring bulbs. Once the bulbs have matured and the foliage has turned brown, it is time to spade them up and thin out the stand. Crowded bulbs produce fewer and smaller blooms. They usually need thinning every three to four years. June is the time to select daylily varieties as they reach their peak of bloom.
Care for your roses
Fertilize roses every four to six weeks. Apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer immediately after a flush of bloom. Continue to spray susceptible roses with a black-spot control such as Funginex every seven to 10 days.
Re-blooming salvias, such as salvia greggii and salvia farinacea, along with other perennials, such as esperanza and vitex, should be pruned back periodically during the summer. To make the job easier, use hedging shears and remove only the spent flowers and a few inches of stem below.
Fall-blooming perennials, such as Mexican marigold mint/tagetes lucida, chrysanthemums, physostegia and salvia leucantha, should be pruned in the same manner during the summer to keep them compact, reducing the need for staking. Complete this type of pruning prior to Sept. 1 since flower buds begin forming about that time.